The truth hurts. I’ve been turning that nugget of wisdom over in my mind. It seems the hurt can go in any number of directions.
One of the situations I find hardest to deal with is when I know someone is lying to me in a conversation or explanation. Many years of experience have taught me that I am generally right when I get this feeling – right in the sense that later events or confessions have come to light, showing that they did indeed lie. I can feel a strong cognitive dissonance between a person’s words and other signals they are giving off – their body language, face or tone.
It makes me feel guarded. It makes me want to withdraw. It makes me lose respect.
For most of my life I have assumed that no-one likes this, that nobody enjoys being lied to. This appears on the surface to be the case, backed up by various plot lines in dramas and books, and how relationships can crumble when lies come to light. But my day-to-day experience with other people (I’m talking predominantly about neurotypical people here) tells a different story: many of them find lies comforting. Small, insincere words of comfort seem to make their world go round.
Social niceties that gloss over glaring problems. Lies about events that happened in the past that leave out the painful bits. Lies about a person’s appearance or achievements meant to make them feel good, rather than to impart information they can use.
Spit it out
But I don’t feel like that. If you think something I’m wearing is inappropriate for work for fuck’s sake tell me rather than laughing behind my back. If I put my foot in it and offended someone just explain it to me, preferably quickly, rather than giving me the cold shoulder and no chance to make amends. Don’t pretend to like me and smile a wooden smile. I’d be more comfortable with your honest indifference or even dislike. You don’t need to pretend to like the gift I gave you – I’d rather be informed of your taste and not repeat the same mistake…
Don’t shoot the messenger
Apparently this makes me unusual and hard to deal with. For so many people, small acts of truthfulness cause pain. Being a straight talker won’t always win you popularity contests, unless you have some compensatory grace and charm.
Paradoxically, the truth hurts me too – but then I’m not a robot. Despite being awkward and blunt, my feelings are pretty close to the surface. The people I have the most time for, who have been lifelong friends or who in some cases are relatives, tend to be truth tellers as well. I have felt despair after being told I’d hurt someone with my choices. I’ve been called ‘cold and heartless’ for dishing out the icy truth to pour cold water on an emerging drama. I’ve been called weird, pushy and aggressive – by the people I love and respect the most. This causes me pain. But these are the most valuable relationships, longer term.
If I’m passionate about integrity I have to be open to hearing inconvenient truths about myself. I have to sit with the discomfort and feelings of failure, see what I can learn. There are often diamonds in the dirt.
Subjectivity and theory of mind
Intellectually I know this, but I have to remind myself of it often. My truth may not be your truth. It’s hard for me to grasp that my carefully thought out (evidence-based!) view is only MY view. The passions of my younger self, ranting and angry that others didn’t get what was plain to see have softened with age. I would still prefer to talk with someone with diametrically opposing views who is honest than a liar who appears to be on my side. I also realise that when I get new evidence, MY truth can also change. Truths are fluid and parallel, not linear and absolute.
And so back to that social event, the person in front of me is telling a story. Am I the only one in the room who can see their nose growing and growing, as lies heap upon misrepresentations? Why does this act to make them look good make me feel so bad?
I have to accept that they may be unaware. As well as lying to me, they could be lying to themselves. People tell and retell and embellish. Half the reason justice is so complicated is because eyewitnesses are often unwittingly inaccurate – we can’t always remember exactly what happened, or who said what. We fill in the gaps. Our memories shift or fade; our concepts about ourselves get tried, broken and re-made.
And so I leave you with a deliberate ambiguity to ponder. Is there an objective truth? Do people always know they are lying after a lifetime of being socialised to say what sounds good rather than what feels true? Can you always tell whether you are lying to or about yourself?
Truth may be a feeling as well as a fact. Integrity is complicated, but I need it as a touchstone.
The truth hurts, but lies do more damage, in the end.